Fewer college students believe that free speech is secure in America today

New Knight Foundation/Ipsos survey finds that when given a choice between campuses allowing all form of speech or limiting speech that could be considered offensive or biased, a majority of college students opt for allowing all types of speech

The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Catherine Morris Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
  • Jocelyn Duran Account Manager, US, Public Affairs
  • Neil Lloyd Senior Research Analyst, Public Affairs
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Washington, DC, January 25, 2022– Please visit http://kf.org/kfxcollege for the full report.

Free speech on college campuses has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as a number of high-profile incidents have given rise to fears by some that institutions may be fostering a less open free speech environment, while others remain more concerned with cultivating a safe and inclusive learning environment for students.

However, a new Knight Foundation/Ipsos report, “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech,” underlines that contrary to fears about rising anti-free expression sentiment on college campuses, a majority of students attending two- and four-year institutions strongly value freedom of speech and see it as vitally important to American democracy. When given the choice, a majority of students say they would prefer colleges to allow all types of speech on campus rather than limiting speech in order to protect people from hearing biased or offensive speech.

These central findings have held true since at least 2016, when Knight Foundation first began surveying college students on free speech. Yet even as free expression remains a cherished value among the student body, fewer believe their free speech rights are secure in America today. In addition, growing numbers say that their campus climate prevents some people from saying things they believe because others may find it offensive, even as the number who favor colleges enacting certain restrictions like disinviting controversial campus speakers or creating safe spaces shrinks.

Yet college students are not monolithic. Partisanship, race, and ethnicity primarily influence how college students experience the world, with implications for where they stand on the free speech debate. Gender, albeit to a lesser extent, also plays a role. Understanding where different groups stand is vitally important for college leaders as they seek to foster free expression on campuses and create a campus environment that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

The “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech” report was released in conjunction with a report on the broader public, “Free Expression in America Post-2020,” allowing for a direct comparison between the college student and general adult population for the first time since 2016. It is the fourth in a series of Knight Foundation reports measuring college student attitudes toward speech and the First Amendment. This report outlines college students views on speech and free expression; the climate surrounding campus speech; campus speech policies; interpretations of the First Amendment; social media; student activism; and how college student views compare with the general public.

Methodology

This Ipsos poll was conducted July 30-August 16, 2021, by Ipsos using the KnowledgePanel® on behalf of Knight Foundation. This poll is based on a representative sample of 4,366 U.S. adults, age 18 or older, with oversamples among Non-Hispanic Black/African Americans, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islanders, Non-Hispanic Other/2 plus races, and Hispanics.

A supplemental sample of 942 additional current college students age 18-24, enrolled in all types of higher education institutions, was collected at the same time; this resulted in a total of 1,023 college students age 18-24 altogether, from the augment and main sample of adults 18+. To collect additional completed interviews among 18- to 24-year-olds, an additional sample of 18- to 24-year-old KnowledgePanel members were selected for this study. KnowledgePanelists were also asked if another member of their household was 18- to 24-years-old and, where eligible, a second member of the household completed the survey.

The study was conducted in both English and Spanish. The data for the main adult sample were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race/ethnicity, education, household income, census region, metropolitan status, language proficiency, gender by age by race/ethnicity, education by race/ethnicity, and census region by race/ethnicity. The demographic benchmarks came from the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Census Bureau except for metropolitan status, which came from the 2020 Current Population Survey (CPS).

The weighting categories were as follows:

  • Gender (Male, Female) by Age (18-29, 30-44, 45-59, 60+)
  • Race-Ethnicity (Non-Hispanic White, Non- Hispanic African American, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Other/2+ Races, Hispanic)
  • Education (Less than High School, High School Grad, Some College, Bachelor or Higher)
  • Household Income (Under $25,000, $25,000-$49,999, $50,000-$74,999, $75,000-$99,999, $100,000-$149,999, $150,000 and over)
  • Census Region (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West)
  • Metropolitan Status (Metro, Non-Metro)
  • Language Proficiency (English Proficient Hispanic, Bilingual Hispanic, Spanish Proficient Hispanic, Non-Hispanic)
  • Gender (Male, Female) by Age (18-44, 45+) by Race-Ethnicity (Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic African American, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Other/2+ Races, Hispanic,)
  • Education (Some College or Less, Bachelor or Higher) by Race-Ethnicity (Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic African American, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Other/2+ Races, Hispanic)
  • Census Region (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West) by Race-Ethnicity (Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic African American, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Other/2+Races, Hispanic)

Because benchmarks for current college students (including recent graduates and rising first-year students) are not available from the ACS or the CPS, benchmarks for this augment sample were derived from the KnowledgePanel sample. All 18- to 24-year-old KnowledgePanelists were weighted to ACS and CPS benchmarks to secure benchmarks for the qualified subset. The weighting categories for college students were as follows:

  • Gender (Male, Female) by Age (18-21, 22-24)
  • Education (Some College or Less, Bachelor or Higher)
  • Race-Ethnicity (Non-Hispanic White, Non- Hispanic African American, Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Other/2+ Races, Hispanic)
  • Household Income (Under $50,000, $50,000-$74,999, $75,000-$99,999, $100,000 and over)
  • Census Region (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West)

The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on current college students age 18-24. Margin of error is greater among subgroups. The margin of error takes into account the design effect, which was 1.14 for students. In our reporting of the findings, percentage points are rounded off to the nearest whole number. As a result, percentages in a given table column may total slightly higher or lower than 100%. In questions that permit multiple responses, columns may total substantially more than 100%, depending on the number of different responses offered by each respondent.

Prior data cited from Knight-Gallup surveys from 2016, 2017, and 2019 represent college students enrolled in four-year institutions only, including oversamples among certain historically Black colleges and universities, and were conducted using a different sampling methodology.

 

 

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The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Catherine Morris Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
  • Jocelyn Duran Account Manager, US, Public Affairs
  • Neil Lloyd Senior Research Analyst, Public Affairs

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